Making a fortune by distributing Nigerian films online

A young Ivorian looks the DVD of a Nollywood (combination of Nigeria and Hollywood) film in a street store in Abidjan, 16 June 2007. The low-budget Nollywood films are hugely popular across Africa

Jason Njoku studied chemistry at university and would probably be working as a scientist had he not thought of a magic formula that he has translated into a huge success: Nigerian films plus online distribution equals big money.

It all started when he realised that his mother sometimes found it difficult to get the latest Nigerian "Nollywood" films in London and he reasoned that many other people around the world would be in the same boat.

The company that he put into motion in December 2010, Iroko Partners (formerly Nollywood Love), has become the largest distributor of Nigerian movies and music.

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We're the first guys to actually legally reach out in Lagos to the production houses, the owners of the movies ”

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Currently the firm has more than 3,000 Nollywood titles in its library and, according to its website, it is Africa's largest content partner on YouTube and Dailymotion.

The company has 81 employees in Lagos, London and New York, and it recently raised $8m (£5m), mainly from the US-based hedge fund Tiger Global.

"We're the first guys to actually legally reach out in Lagos to the production houses, the owners of the movies and negotiate and sign deals with these guys so they can finally get remunerated for their hard efforts," Mr Njoku told the BBC's series African Dream.

"Primarily, Nigeria's movie distribution has been via DVD so we've basically created another way for them to make money. They're very very happy about that."

Fifty films a week

Nollywood is the second largest film industry in the world by volume and its estimated annual revenue is $590m (£364m).

Jason Njoku

Jason Njoku                                                            (Copyright: iROKO Partners)
  • Age: 31
  • University of Manchester graduate in chemistry, 2005
  • Moved to Lagos, Nigeria, and started Iroko Partners in 2010
  • The firm has become the largest online distributor of Nigerian films and music
  • Iroko Partners has 81 employees in Lagos, London and New York
  • The company recently raised $8m, led by US-based hedge fund Tiger Global

The low-budget films, often involving love-triangles and/ or witchcraft, are hugely popular across the continent.

According to data from Iroko Partners, approximately 50 movies are produced each week and they cost $25,000-$70,000 to make.

So how does Mr Njoku find the right films in such a huge industry?

"When I first started, there was a lot of literally... just wandering into the market, trying to find these production houses," the entrepreneur told the BBC's Alice Lander.

"I say production houses but they are literally just one guy, a mobile phone and just a lot of enthusiasm and his own personal capital to go out, develop and create these amazing movies."

Mr Njoku pointed out that things have changed and at the moment whenever a movie is released, the producers take it to his company.

"We can't buy every single movie out there but we can try and see the best ones if we believe our viewers will enjoy them," he said.

'Spectacular failure'

Mr Njoku said his first venture after graduating from the University of Manchester in 2005 was launching a student magazine which "ended in spectacular failure".

"People loved the magazine. We just never were able to figure out how to make money from it.

"I think it taught me many things. One was that my youthful enthusiasm just wasn't enough to actually run a successful business but also it taught me obviously about hard work and focusing on the right things."

Then in early 2010 he started thinking about making a living out of Nollywood but did not have any money of his own to start the business.

At the time he "struggled to get a bank account", and thus could not get a loan from a financial institution.

"I'm from a solidly working class family in south-east London. I was the first person in my family ever to go to university," he said.

"My best friend from university, he just had this blind belief that I was on [to] something interesting. I'd always work hard. I always worked the most longest hours, with the most intensity, and always got paid the least [compared] to every single person I knew."

According to him, his friend started injecting small amounts of money into the business.

"After about nine months, it still hadn't worked and by that time we had spent around £30,000, so in the end he said: 'Look, for this thing to work we need to be in Lagos. You need basically to move there', so in the end it ended up costing around £100,000 of his money to be able to do that."

No red carpets

But now the risk that his friend ran has paid off and other people who believe in his vision have backed his efforts to bring Nigerian entertainment online.

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I'm an internet geek. I sit by my computer, that's all I do”

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"I wake up every single day super-excited about just being in control of my own time, and about having a real impact and change the world, in my little own way," he said.

And what advice does he have for aspiring entrepreneurs?

"You just have to do it. I'm of the really simple opinion that you can listen to all the advice in the world but you have to be able to [make] own your mistakes… the biggest barrier is ourselves."

To many people in Nigeria and elsewhere his own goals probably seem as though they come from a Nollywood film.

In his blog he says he has set himself the target of having $100m in asset wealth by the time he is 40. He is now 31.

And in his private life he has also probably out-dreamed many film fans: His girlfriend is a well-known Nollywood actress.

But he pointed out that they are not very interested in glamour.

"We are both very simple people. You won't see us on red carpets and stuff like that. I'm an internet geek. I sit by my computer, that's all I do, and she supports me as I sit by computer."

African Dream is broadcast on the BBC Network Africa programme every Monday morning.

Every week, one successful business man or woman will explain how they started off and what others could learn from them.

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